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Monday, August 26 2019 @ 01:05 am EDT

Second person killed in Panama labor clashes

Protests & DemonstrationsPANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Striking banana plantation workers in western Panama battled police on Saturday in clashes that killed a second person in three days as labor unrest deepened in the Central American country. President Ricardo Martinelli's office confirmed a person was killed as police tried to remove street barricades set up in the Changuinola area by workers protesting a new law that allows companies to fire striking workers. Martinelli, a conservative who took office last year, has won praise from investors for pushing tax reforms through Congress that helped Panama win investment grade ratings on its debt this year. But he is increasingly at odds with organized labor in the country, which is a player in global shipping and has one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America. About 4 percent of world trade passes through the Panama Canal.

Banana workers have been on strike for more than a week in the western city of Changuinola. A protester was killed by a shotgun blast on Thursday. On Saturday, television images showed riot police shooting tear gas and shotguns as they broke through barricades of felled trees and corrugated metal set up by protesters. The president's office did not give details about the person killed on Saturday, who was described by local media as a male resident of the banana growing district. Three police officers taken hostage by strikers were freed after a fourth kidnapped officer escaped, Martinelli's office said.

Martinelli signed a law last month that allows companies to suspend contracts of striking workers and hire replacements. Unions are also upset because member dues are voluntary under the new law. In another smoldering labor conflict, some workers laid down their tools on Saturday at the Panama Canal expansion project in central Panama, deputy labor minister Luis Ernesto Carles told Reuters. Earlier in the week, dozens of striking workers on the $5.25 billion project were fired and several were arrested for refusing to return to work after authorities brokered a deal to improve work conditions. "Where we are still having some interference is in the Atlantic part" of the expansion project, Carles said, adding the project was suffering from partial work interruptions. The Panama Canal has remained open throughout the dispute.

(Reporting by Sean Mattson; editing by Jason Lange and Mohammad Zargham)

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